Mabel Bowden Howard was born in Bowden, Adelaide, Australia, on 18 April 1894, the second of three daughters of Edwin (Ted) John Howard, a labourer, and his wife, Harriett Garard Goring. The family lived mostly in Australia, although sometimes in New Zealand, until Harriett’s death in Adelaide in 1903. Ted then returned to Christchurch with their daughters. He was often poor and had to leave the girls with Harriett’s relatives for lengthy periods while he sought work.
After attending primary school Mabel Howard studied commercial subjects at Christchurch Technical College. In 1911 she went to work for the Canterbury General Labourers’ Union, of which Ted was a leading member. She was employed as an office assistant until 1933, and was then appointed secretary of the union. She was the first New Zealand woman to be secretary of a male union, and was widely regarded as efficient and conscientious. She herself often recalled working extra time to find cheap food for her poorly paid members. She was an assiduous collector of subscriptions from the recalcitrant, on one occasion chasing a defaulter up three storeys of scaffolding.
Mabel Howard also acted as an unpaid political assistant to her father from before 1919. Indeed, she claimed to have sacrificed proposals of marriage in favour of continuing to help him. Ted Howard died in April 1939 and Mabel hoped to inherit his seat of Christchurch South, which he had represented for Labour since 1919. She lost the nomination to Robert Macfarlane, and believed that she was blocked by the New Zealand Labour Party hierarchy because of her connections with the rebellious John A. Lee. She consulted with Lee over the matter and, like him, displayed a persecution complex, believing that conspiracies were being mounted to keep her from her rightful place.
After her father’s death Mabel Howard underwent something of a spiritual reorientation. She flirted with the occult by joining the Rosicrucians in early 1939, but in December that year was confirmed in the Anglican church. Ted Howard was agnostic, but his brothers and sisters in England were priests and nuns in various Anglo-Catholic orders. Mabel corresponded with her aunts, and apparently came to share their religious outlook. She was a faithful member of St Chad’s parish in Linwood, serving for many years on the vestry.
Mabel Howard was heavily involved with voluntary and semi-official war work. She was organiser of the Canterbury Women’s War Service Auxiliary, chair of the Christchurch Women’s Active Service Club, and the only woman on the district rehabilitation committee. In addition she was actively involved in the St John Ambulance Association, and sat on the Christchurch City Council for many years. In 1942 the seat of Christchurch East became vacant on the death of Tim Armstrong, and Howard won selection as the Labour candidate. She took the seat in the by-election on 6 February 1943, facing a bigger threat from John A. Lee’s breakaway party than from the National Party candidate.
In her first four years as a back-bencher Mabel Howard frequently addressed topics such as social welfare (arguing, for example, that Social Security Department employees should have a more sympathetic approach), rehabilitation of servicemen and servicewomen (supporting policies that would enable them to train for professional occupations), and the needs of women generally. She was a particular advocate of consumer protection measures and state-paid domestic help for mothers, especially those in rural areas. In her maiden speech, and often thereafter, she distinguished between private charity, which she considered ‘abhorrent’, and a pension to which one was entitled as of right, as a means of increasing living standards and self-esteem. On many issues she worked informally with the National MP Hilda Ross, who was elected in 1945. Howard was an early parliamentary advocate of equal pay for women, and also frequently defended the character and honour of trade union secretaries.
Mabel Howard perhaps expected cabinet rank after the 1946 election, in which she scored the highest majority in the country. She had to wait until a vacancy was created by the death of Dan Sullivan, and her election by caucus to cabinet in May 1947. Appointed minister of health and minister in charge of child welfare, Howard was the country’s first woman cabinet minister. Opinions differ as to her effectiveness, with some contemporaries believing she needlessly antagonised departmental officials and doctors, and others believing that Peter Fraser and Arnold Nordmeyer (her predecessors in the health portfolio) continued to control policy. However, she introduced important legislation which provided for better treatment of tuberculosis, the professional regulation of physiotherapists and occupational therapists, and the teaching of obstetrics and gynaecology. She also introduced legislation to improve facilities for the mentally ill, and sought to remove the associated stigma.
Perhaps her least successful initiative was to have the Burnham military camp, 18 miles from Christchurch, converted for pensioner housing in 1949. Although Howardville, as it was known, lasted for seven years, it proved to be too far from Christchurch and to have too few facilities to be successful – despite regular visits from Howard herself.
As a high-profile and sometimes flamboyant minister – using her four-foot eleven-inch stature and rotund shape to advantage – Mabel Howard brought a much-needed splash of colour to an increasingly tired Labour cabinet; but as an opposition MP between 1949 and 1957 she was able to achieve little, even though she constantly attacked the National government over the cost of living. It was during these years, however, that Mabel Howard staged the stunt for which she is best remembered. In an otherwise tepid debate on the Merchandise Marks bill on the evening of 22 September 1954, she raised the issue of standardised clothing sizes. To make the point that some OS items were much smaller than others, she waved two pairs of women’s bloomers in front of an astonished House. The clothing manufacturers bailed her up in Parliament the next day, but she received much support (including some from the National Party), and standardisation was soon legislated. On another occasion, on 30 August 1956, she gave a strong impetus to the equal pay campaign by urging women in the public service to resist ‘smarmy talk’ and procrastination by government members.
Howard was noted as an assiduous constituency MP. Many people from far beyond her own electorate sought her aid with social security matters, and single women whose own careers had been sacrificed to the care of aged parents were a particular concern. She kept open house every Sunday – a forerunner of modern electorate clinics and accessible to all. She became noted for many personal acts of generosity. Immigrant Chinese found her particularly helpful and she was also keenly interested in the welfare of the residents of the Girls’ Training Centre for girls under supervision, and of old-age pensioners in her electorate. She was fond of young people and was a patron of the Christchurch Teenage Club. In 1959 she attracted much attention for dancing at a rock and roll teenage jamboree with the teenage idol Johnny Devlin. In time, too, she formed close friendships with a number of the more gentlemanly National MPs, particularly E. R. Neale and Alf Allen.
Labour returned to office in 1957 and Mabel Howard became minister of social security, minister in charge of the welfare of women and children and minister in charge of the child welfare department. Walter Nash denied her the health portfolio, apparently regarding her as insufficiently diplomatic; some parliamentarians believed that she never forgave Nash for that. She made few innovations during this term, but did succeed in securing the passage of the Animals Protection Act in 1960, which she had first introduced in 1957. She was obsessively fond of cats, always lavishing attention on the several in her house, and was for many years president of the SPCA in Christchurch.
With Labour in opposition from 1960 Mabel Howard was once again a back-bencher. She began to pay less attention to constituency work and spoke less constructively in the House, but her loyal Sydenham constituents, whom she had represented since 1946, returned her with large majorities in 1963 and 1966. Only after the Labour Party introduced a mandatory retirement age did she stand down in 1969, but she was already in declining health, suffering the early stages of dementia as well as pneumonia. Once retired she aged rapidly, becoming increasingly paranoid and isolated. Finally she was committed to Sunnyside Hospital, Christchurch, on a court order, and died there on 23 June 1972. She had never married.
Mabel Howard was a dedicated trade unionist and Labour MP, and to the best of her ability served the causes she championed. She could be firmly loyal in her friendships, and was devoted to her father, but her need to be needed was a major element in personal relationships. She could be manipulative and was prone to flying into dangerous rages. She could be excessively jealous of her own prerogatives and, in earlier times, of anyone who might claim her father’s attention. Behind the public face there was a lonely and insecure woman, who perhaps had never recovered from the hardships of her early years.